Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: Composer with colossal imagination

Composer Anthony M. Kelley is assistant professor of music at Duke University.

Society would be all the richer if it adequately highlighted the magnificent, hidden cultural treasures of composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who was born in Winston-Salem in 1932 and lived most of his life in New York City before his death in 2004.

Perkinson's music was omni-cultural. His work included classical, jazz and blues. He produced scores for films, composed orchestral pieces and played piano for a jazz combo.

Perkinson is an exemplary member of a collective of notable African-American composers, such as T.J. Anderson, Tania Leon, Alvin Singleton, Hale Smith, George Walker and Olly Wilson, who produced exciting work within the written tradition of black musical practice, an art form that sometimes has taken a back seat to its cultural counterpart, the oral tradition. Like his peers, Perkinson deserves recognition as a significant force due to the power of his music alone. Beyond that, through expressive flair, intellectual integrity and diligence, he crafted uniquely vivid aural monuments that reflected his culture and the times.

A delightfully eclectic offering of Perkinson's output from 1954 to 2004 can be found on the 2005 compact disc "Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration" (Cedille Records). This collection demonstrates many dimensions of Perkinson's compositional voice, revealing a breadth and command that span centuries of European and African/African-American music-making. His music foreshadows many issues of cultural merging that remain a major project of composers today.

Starting with the "Sonata Allegro" movement of his "Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings," which patiently sets the aesthetic stage with a gentle, neoclassical framework, Perkinson inserts elusive harmony that supports a pattern of melodic gestures that music professors would call "escape tones."

But Perkinson's "escape tones" are not only escaping their expected melodic directions; they also escape and defy the very nature of what exclusive American society would have considered the Western classical musical tradition. They construct subversive pathways -- musical "underground railroads," if you will -- to what emerges as American music becomes more true to itself: an inclusive environment. His brand of musical tension and resolution reflects an imagined society that can successfully address and transcend its points of fragmentation and strife, leading to peace and reconciliation. The Largo, or very slow, central movement presents an extended, lyrical line in doubled voices between the rich, middle-ranged strings and its bass counterparts, like a haunting chorus of the living and their ancestors.

After the quiet strains of the Largo, the final movement springs to life, beckoning the energy of Afro-Latin rhythms and encapsulating African-American spiritual resilience.

His 1956 "Quartet No. 1," based on "Calvary (Negro Spiritual)," says enough in its title to intrigue anyone who wants to investigate the essence of American music, because Negro spirituals have often led preeminent musicians to some of their most inspired work. And "Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin" provides a perfect, comfortable blend of vernacular familiarity with kaleidoscopically elegant abstract ideas.

These works represent only a fraction of the music spawned by Perkinson's colossal imagination. His output is a testament to the difficult task of studying, comprehending and drawing from traditions that, during his time, were presumed ethnically, intellectually, spiritually and artistically incompatible. His dedication to practices of cultural understanding and successful synthesis through music serves as a model for a growing number of 21st century composers, including this writer. His attitudes and their musical manifestations should inspire any person of conscience who wishes to contribute to human improvement and social progress.

To learn more: Go to nypl.org/research/sc/scl/MULTIMED/JAZZHIST/cpcat.htm.